Frank Bruni Also Finds Frank Bruni Unreadable
Frank Bruni really hates those insidery political books filled with trivialities and meaningless anecdotes instead of good old-fashioned hard reporting on how policy sausage is made:
There’s certainly some nutrition in these meals, but a whole lot of empty calories as well: anecdotes as intent on titillation as illumination; scoops of questionable provenance and dubious reliability; winding digressions from anything central to public discourse. Taken together, “The Rogue” and “Confidence Men” illustrate the unsettling degree to which journalism and entertainment overlap and to which elected officials are regarded as all-purpose celebrities, their every inner thought, every little tiff and every last peccadillo consumed as raptly as paparazzi shots of Brangelina. There’s a market, seemingly more robust than ever, for political secrets.
Frank Bruni’s George Bush tongue bath, Are You There George? It’s Me, Pancho:
The portrait of Bush that emerges once you peel away all the schmaltz is endearing if not quite reassuring. Bruni catalogs Bush’s numerous off-camera antics: hanging a hot airplane towel on his head and playing “peek-a-boo” with Bruni during an interview, flashing goofy expressions to reporters while at a funeral for victims of a church shooting. Ditto Bush’s most bizarrely inappropriate comments, as when he barks “Hey Tree Man, get up here!” to a Forest Service official during a press conference on forest fires.
Where Bruni does overplay his hand — albeit not quite as badly as with the Sept. 11 motif — is in reading excessive meaning into these two sides of Bush, the imp and the adult. In the book’s press kit, Bruni implies that this dichotomy gives Bush as interesting a personality as Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon. Often he approaches Bush as some sort of enigma, noting more than once that Bush’s occasional moments of lucidity made it harder for those accustomed to Bush’s usual gobbledygook “to get a real handle on him, on what he might be capable of.”
At one point Bruni devotes several evidently earnest pages to deciding whether to accept the campaign’s spin on Bush. “We were to believe that he gave succinct public remarks — because he valued brevity and getting to the point — We were to believe that he paid limited attention to details and fine points — because he never wanted to lose sight of the Big Picture — Was the explanation real,” Bruni wonders, “or was it an elaborate attempt at diversion from his failings?” Toward the end of the book Bruni even comes out and says that “[Bush] and his aides seemed to be elaborately constructing a universe around him that deepened the riddle and forbid its solution.”
Now, one can understand an author trying to gin up interest in his subject. But a Karamazov brother this president is not. What Bush’s generally underwhelming public performances suggest to me is that he’s a reliably inarticulate and uninterested guy who every so often gets a talking point straight and who tends to play better in intimate settings. How the campaign’s attempts to obscure this makes for some elaborate conspiracy is beyond me.
Still, it’s only when Bruni lapses into his all-too-frequent disquisitions on the state of campaign journalism that he starts to grate. At various points in the book Bruni hits on all the familiar journalism-school-seminar themes: Journalists are too often prisoner to simplistic, pre-established campaign narratives (in this case, Bush is dumb, Gore is tedious); journalists too often ignore The Issues in favor of trivia and minutiae (Gore’s convention kiss, any major Bush screw-up); journalists spend as much time manufacturing stories as they do reporting them (the R-A-T-S commercial controversy, the debate over the debates); blah, blah, blah.
And yet for all his grumbling about journalists and their narratives, Bruni has invented a pretty tendentious story himself. Much of what Bruni writes is intended to persuade us that Bush “matured” over the course of the campaign. At the story’s outset, Bruni depicts a towel-snapping frat boy who can’t string two sentences together. By campaign’s end, Bush is nothing short of statesmanlike.
As Bruni sums it up: “[Bush] had learned that he could not take so very many things for granted, victory being just one of them, and that he could not take so very many things lightly. He was not a new man, but he was a slightly different one, and maybe a slightly better one.” That this new, philosophical Bush was still misbehaving well into the campaign’s homestretch — recall the aforementioned asshole comment — doesn’t seem to bother Bruni. Nor does the several-month-long relapse Bruni describes after Bush assumes the presidency — cracking juvenile jokes about aides, mouthing messages to reporters during important press conferences.
Who knew that when Bruni wrote Born Round he simply meant that he was a round heel for any guy with a boyish grin and peek-a-boo glance…